Monday, February 7, 2011

Emigration Blues

My wife called me Friday afternoon and asked if I wanted to come into town to have after work drinks with some friends. Cheyenne and I were out walking on Cudjoe where I took these pictures, the sun was warm and the breeze through the mangroves was cool. I thought about riding in on Highway One in the weekend traffic and then, worse riding out of town with the departing office workers clogging the Overseas Highway and I made that sort of a noise that an alert spouse will interpret as meaning "God, how do I get out of this without causing offense?""No problem, " she said, and she meant it. I felt a wave of relief wash over me. I had a plan to buy a four pack of Boddington's Pub Ale at Winn Dixie on Big Pine and proceed to sit on my deck and watch the sun go down in a blaze of glory. A good plan I thought, and no need to be fighting traffic to get into Key West. Then of course I got the wave of guilt, and not just for turning my wife down. "I'm starting to act like a Conch" I thought to myself. People who live in Old Town Key West rarely bestir themselves to go to New Town. Driving five miles out to Stock Island is beyond the pale and coming out to my house at Mile Marker 27 is a full blown adventure. I pride myself on being able to ride the half hour into town twice a day if necessary, no complaints. But it seems even I am changing.Life in the Keys is different and for some reason some people learn to adapt and thrive here and others fail miserably. I'm not sure what it is about living here but in part I believe some people have overblown expectations, some people have ambition and some people have no idea what they are letting themselves in for. Face it: the best most rewarding jobs are all taken. Sure you can start your own business and compete with already established well known organizations, but if you, like me, enjoy being a wage slave you will be hard pressed to find a job that pays the equivalent cash or satisfaction of what you do now (assuming you have a position where you are). I am extremely fortunate that I have a job I love in a place that respects me and gives me room to enjoy my job. My wife as I shall explain landed her job by sheer chance and determination and luck. You can land your dream job but if you can't do you still want to be here? Life in the Keys is close quarter living; you will see the same faces, the same vehicles and the same places over and over again. The art of living in a small space requires tolerance and the ability to turn a blind eye. If you are a control freak and think everyone should learn from you, the master, you will rapidly lose any chance at all of making a go of life in the Keys. Things get done a certain way here not because it is the most efficient or sensible way to you but because it works for what needs to get done, and paradoxically that usually is the best way to do things here! Often there is a secret Byzantine hierarchy that controls certain activities and threatening the power structure is never a good thing. The best advice I give newcomers is not to make waves, not to have any opinions and never ever have anything bad to say about anyone. You never know who is related to whom, who sleeps with whom, who wishes they could sleep with whom or who used to sleep with whom and have remained friends anyway. Start talking shit about people and it will come back to haunt you in a hurry. Get a bad reputation and Key West will close ranks on you. You get work, you make friends by invitation. And no one wants to work or play with a fink or a grouch.In the larger picture I don't believe this is a very good time to be making a change in your life. It seems to me the musical chairs of the boom years has stopped and wherever one is when the music stopped playing is exactly where one is likely to have to stay for a while. Easy for me to say, I suppose. I like my house, my job and my location generally. I wake up every afternoon and look out the window at the sun playing on the palm leaves outside my house and I know this is where I want to be. I actually miss going to work sometimes even though I like being home with my wife and dog. I have more and better friends than ever and I don't want anything much to change in my life... In a society where people are used to packing up and making a change at the drop of a hat the new reality of high unemployment, shrinking wages and general immobility is going to be hard to take. Frankly I'm pissed off that the banksters have fucked up the world economy so much that even little old me could have his comfy middle class life affected by their greed. Happily Cheyenne plods on regardless and cheers me up when I read how world food prices are set to keep going up and starve more and more pissed off people around the world.Key West is in many respects a little south of reality. The economy here is not hurting near as much as one hears about Up North. Housing prices have dropped a bit but for the most part houses remain largely unaffordable- especially considering how hard it is to qualify for a loan these days. There are a few fixer upper homes for around $300,000 but compared to what you can buy on mainland Florida house prices have a certain air of unreality about them, despite large numbers of foreclosures on the market. Lower Keys homes have dropped a lot more than those in town. I have asked around among my colleagues who rent and here is a run down of rough rental prices in the city for reasonable units most likely not deep in Old Town. The more picturesque your place the more it will cost and the more functionally uncomfortable it will be. For a two bedroom two bath (thus with potential for a room mate) $1500. Two bed one bath possibly $1300, and for a "real" one bed unit $1200 and a nice studio $1,000. A starting dispatcher's salary will pay one full check for rent at prices like these. It's not uncommon therefore for people to hold down at least two jobs...or for middle aged people to re-learn how to live with a roommate. Ugh!Work is no longer easy to come by in Key West. If you wanted to move here, five or six years ago would have been perfect. You could pretty much have any job you wanted. My boat captain job literally fell into my lap one day while i was walking the waterfront. My boss desperately needed captains with licenses and he practically forced me to take a job I wasn't sure I wanted. My wife was hired as a teacher despite her only qualification being a desire to work and a law degree. She spent the next three years getting her teaching credentials and a slew of assorted upgrades, but when she applied for the job at the new juvenile jail classroom she was the sole applicant. No teacher wanted a twelve month job- in the jail! Most of the job interview questions related to housing costs and we lived on our boat across the street from the jail so she passed with flying colors! Last year that same job opening attracted four dozen highly qualified applicants from school districts Up North. My wife would never have even got an interview.Speaking with people familiar with the hospitality trades the same applies. People who are known quantities in town get the best jobs, and networking is everything. It used to be easier of course but... In the matter of jobs it's easier to get a job when you are settled in town, but looking at those rental prices it means coming to town with something like $5,000 in your pocket just to get started. Or you could sleep among the working poor and homeless on a mattress in a dormitory at the Keys Overnight temporary Shelter on Stock Island...it's free but it's not what people come to the Keys to do, to live among the indigent. Then there is the matter of the Key West "lifestyle." One young lad I knew recently came to Key West to go to school and live in the warmth for a while and went home to mom with a heroin addiction it turned out. This is not a good place to be if you have an addictive personality. Drink accompanies every function, drugs are widely available and if you need sex drunks in bars are on vacation and looking for companionship and adventure. However none of this adds up to a reliable work schedule and everyone knows intellectually that being on vacation isn't the same as being at home. How that translates for you in real life is up to you. Keys Disease is a fun joke when you are on vacation but it is a total pain in the ass when you are living your daily life and trying to get things done. Some businesses advertise their strong point as being that they turn up when promised. Being laid back is a cliché that only applies when you aren't in a hurry or when your toilet isn't backed up or when you just want to get in and get out without a prolonged stay in the check out line. Very often your neighbors who are on vacation or retired think it's okay for them to inflict their mañana attitude on you and call that being laid back. I have found a reliable mechanic, reliable house cleaner and a reliable odd job man. All that makes me a happy camper, but it took a while.For those that have supportive partners, that can live in close quarters and can find and hold down as many jobs as needed to pay the bills, life can be very good. There are of course restrictions, no lakes rivers or streams, no hills within 800 miles, no skiing, no frost, no freeways and not much shopping. The joy of living without a car can translate into island fever or "rock fever" as it's known. Lots of people in Key West rarely get out on the water, and as they hate to drive rarely get out of town never mind drive to Miami for a change of pace of a weekend. Me? I like living outside Key West. I have space around my house, perfect peace and quiet especially in the long hot summer months and with a dock and a skiff tied up behind my house my wife and I go swimming in the ocean five days a week when the waters are warm. That we don't go fishing is one of those cruel ironies that we live here and don't enjoy one of the best local sports available...
I have found a very happy way of life in the Keys. My first visit was in 1981 but I rode my Vespa back up the way I had come and continued on to the bright lights of San Francisco and ultimately Santa Cruz California. Key West back then was too small for my youthful desires and a university town with lots of bright young people was what I wanted. California wore thin after 20 years of summer fog and winter rain and traffic jams so we took off sailing with no destination in mind. We landed in Key West where I had lived previously on my boat and we slipped into a liveaboard life after a couple of years sailing down to Panama and back up in 2000. It was only when we moved ashore and bought a house and put down visible roots that we figured we might want to stay. I like minding my own business and I prefer it if my neighbors do the same. I love the weather, especially that it rains mostly in summer when it's hot and in winter when it's cold it's mostly dry. And about the summer heat it's not nearly as stifling as some people seem to think. It rarely gets over 90 or 95 degrees while I read about 100+ degree days in the mid West. Then there are those eight months of the year when snowbirds stay away and tourism is focused mostly in Key West. Those are the months that shine in my memory, less traffic no lines to eat out and bright white sunshine highlighting huge puffy thunderheads in the sky. It is quite magical down here from May through October.And then there are hurricanes. These can be a total pain in the ass especially if they keep showing up one after the other all summer long, as has happened in summers past. If there is a likelihood of the city or county being hit officials will issue a mandatory evacuation order. All that means is if you elect to stay behind you can count on not getting any help when the winds start to blow. Some people make a point of swaggering and ignoring official warnings, my strategy is a little different. As soon as the schools close my wife packs the dog and her evacuation bag in the car and drives north to stay with friends. I close up the house and retire to the police station when we get locked down.Hurricanes get a lot of press because they seem dramatic but more people seem to die in mid western floods from overflowing rivers than die in our storms. I can't think of one death attributable to hurricanes in Key West at least since Georges in 1998. However hurricanes do produce tornadoes and destruction from the embedded twisters can be quite dramatic. The chance of losing one's home is ever present. Renting has that advantage too.It is difficult to overstate the isolation produced by living in the Lower Keys (those islands south of the Seven Mile Bridge). Get used to the idea that you will be a long way from what you know, your friends and family. You will have to live for quite a while in Key West, maybe as long as three years before people start to get used to seeing you around and trusting that you might be staying long enough to make it worth their while to invest the time in getting to know you better. It gets tiring meeting people and then having them "go home" just when you get to know them. This creates a rather reticent society, so plan on taking your time getting to make new friends.Do you enjoy rock climbing? Mountain biking? Hiking in mature forests? Waterfalls? Shopping? Activities are limited but you make life your way in this collection of small lumps of flat rock scattered across the ocean. Me? I am not fond of gatherings. I like to go out and be with friends, but I'm not interested in costumes and balls and parties with a bunch of strangers so you won't see me around town much unless I get dragged there by the scruff of the neck. I don't drink in bars but I do like going to the Tropic Cinema. I like Goombay for the food, the local's parade during Fantasy Fest though lately it has been suffering from excess participation in my book, and the Holiday Parade in December. Other than that I'm not much for food festivals standing around in the sun eating stuff I can buy much more comfortably in a restaurant. I doubt they miss my participation as tons of people do enjoy that stuff. I used to like Sculpture Key West a lot more when it was located solely at Fort Zachary instead of being scattered across town...but I am not fond of change as a general rule. That's a bad thing as in Key West things are changing all the damned time.Key West is a multi faceted jewel in the respect that my life here is likely to be completely unlike anyone else's and my perception of what works and what is worthwhile can appear completely wrong to that someone else. Naturally the more gregarious are out and about all the time, the wealthy view a lot of the tedious money calculations as pointless, or worse as tacky, God forbid, and oftentimes one tends to forget the struggle it took to get settled here. Yet in trying to paint an honest picture one tends to come across I think as excessively morose and too focused on the aggravating details. For instance visitors often wonder why I don't want to live in charming Old Town and ride a bicycle everywhere, and I am at pains to point out that my fuel burning 27 mile commute is fun, I look forward to the ride every work night! I live in the Keys and I am not supposed to enjoy driving. What can I say? I like having offsets alongside my home to give me some distance from my neighbors, I don't like roosters and I loathe having drunks puking in my yard or screaming their way down the street at 4am.I am sensitive to noise so living with crowing roosters and lots of neighbors close by while trying to sleep in the middle of the day would be hard for me. On Ramrod Key I live cocooned in blissful silence. To my way of thinking living outside Key West is proper Keys living with starry nights overhead unblemished by street lights, easy access to the water and space to enjoy views across the open spaces of the Lower Keys.
In my life I have found that emigration (and I've done a fair bit of it over the years) has come as the result of desperation. For some reason I couldn't stand being where I was and as a result I found it less painful to move than to stay. Had my wife not had rheumatoid arthritis I dare say we would have returned to live amongst our friends in our lovely beach home in Santa Cruz California, a very pleasant place to live where we lived a very pleasant life, but the fact is that two years of tropical living on our basic sailboat in Central America had shown how much pain she was spared in a hot humid climate. Key West offered her a chance to sleep at night where the cold foggy climate of coastal California didn't. We tried to settle in Key West half reluctantly, ironically enough, and for us everything fell into place rather in the manner of so much in life. When you want something too much the gods of irony frequently prefer to withhold it. Perhaps that's the best advice I can give to a potential émigré: treat Key West as a reluctant lover and sidle up ready to be the first one to do the dumping rather than to be ready to get dumped. Perhaps you will be admitted to the hallowed ranks and get to bitch about snowbirds and tourists and the costs of everything and the lack of shopping and all the other stuff you have to find to complain about when you get to live in Paradise; that's just the human condition.